CounterPunch, February 12, 2016
When Plan A Meets Plan B: Talking Politics and Revolution with the Green Party’s Jill Stein
“We are in a state of emergency, and it requires a new way of thinking and political independence to stand up not just for what we can get, but what must have if we are to survive as a human species.”
— Jill Stein, February 3, 2016
“Let us hope that the inevitable first woman [United States] president is a person distinguished by a profound understanding of the world and genuine human compassion, rather than by relentless personal ambition.” So writes Diana Johnstone in her brilliant new study Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton (CounterPunch Books, 2015). Last week, two days after Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton fought to a virtual tie in the Iowa caucus and six days after Sanders trounced Hillary in New Hampshire, I sat down in Iowa City to chat by phone with a person who matches Johnstone’s notion of what she’d like to see in a first female U.S. president. I spoke to Dr. Jill Stein, who ran for the White House as the Green Party’s candidate in 2012 and who will in all likelihood do so again in 2016.
“From Clinical Medicine to Political Medicine”
Dr. Stein is a Harvard Medical School graduate who witnessed firsthand the terrible impacts of what she calls “predatory capitalism” on ordinary working and middle-class children and families during her years as a physician. Learning that pollution produced by corporate greed was the major “underlying driver” behind many of the expanding illnesses (especially asthma, diabetes, cancer, and learning disabilities) she was confronting on an individual basis, she became a leading environmental and public health policy expert and advocate. “You can help people one at a time,” Stein realized, “while whole populations get thrown over the cliff.” She turned “from clinical medicine to political medicine” after realizing that “the road to health was profoundly obstructed by the hijacking of our political system by oligarchy and corporate power.”
Stein was first “tricked into electoral politics,” in her words, 14 years ago. That’s when progressives successfully recruited her to run as the Green Party’s candidate in the 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial election. During a televised debate between the contenders, Dr. Stein’s comments were totally ignored by the two major-party contestants — the corporate-Republican governor Mitt Romney and corporate-Democrat challenger Shannon O’Brien. Inside the debate studio, her remarks “went over like a lead balloon.” But things were different outside. After the event, reporters told Stein that an online viewer poll registered her as the winner.
Sanders v. Stein: Looking Beneath Bernie’s “Revolution”
“Okay, so what,” I asked Dr. Stein — playing devil’s advocate — “about Bernie? Sanders says he’s for single-payer health insurance, big green jobs programs, tackling climate change, a significantly higher federal minimum wage, serious campaign finance reform, and a financial transaction tax along with the other forms of genuine progressive taxation. He even sometimes calls himself a ‘democratic socialist.’ What’s the problem here? Why not just line up behind Bernie?”
Stein praises Sanders for “giving voice and legitimacy” to key majority-progressive policy sentiments but asks a basic and critical question: “How long will a campaign calling for ‘revolution’ be tolerated by a counter-revolutionary party?” She elaborates:
“Whether our campaign is a Plan B for Bernie supporters when the [corporate-Democratic Party] Empire strikes back or whether we’re Plan A because we need a real movement that is independent of the corporate interests that dominate the Democratic Party from top to bottom, it’s important to ensure that this revolution lives on in way that is deep and that will grow strong …and you really have to discount the last decades of experience to think that the Democratic Party is going to just roll over and allow this to happen. … Many of our supporters are backing both campaigns and that’s just fine, but you don’t want to pledge allegiance to a Democratic Party that is at best, even under Sanders, pushing for a military budget that is bankrupting us financially and morally, a war on terror that is creating more terror, and treating the Saudis like they’re the solution rather than a cause of terrorism.”
Sanders has endorsed President Obama’s disastrous, jihad-fueling drone war program and “doesn’t stand up to the [Orwellian national security] deep state,” Stein notes. “Bernie treats Edward Snowden like a criminal rather than a hero.” Sanders backed the F-35 fight jet boondoggle on the grounds that it would create jobs in his state, a striking expression of his commitment to military Keynesianism (employed to undermine social-democratic welfare-state Keynesianism after World War II). And Sanders “supports governments that commit egregious human rights abuses,” including Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the most reactionary government on Earth, which fuels terrorism across the world. Bernie’s “treatment of the Palestinians” is horrific, Stein notes.
“Does Sanders fail to seriously confront the Pentagon System,” I asked Dr. Stein, “because he is himself a loyal man of U.S. global Empire?”
“Who knows what goes on in his head?” Jill Stein answered. The “reality is that he supports the war on terror,” which has “cost $6 trillion over the past 15 years. That’s $75,000 per household. … That’s why we need a real revolution, a deep revolution against the military industrial complex (MIC).”
Stein’s differences with Sanders go beyond his commitment to global empire, the surveillance state and the MIC. Where Sanders merely wants to audit the Federal Reserve, Stein calls for its nationalization.
Sanders is a longstanding supporter of high-stakes standardized testing in K-12 education, something Stein rejects as part of the corporate class’s anti-teacher, anti-democratic, and anti-intellectual schools-privatization agenda.
Sanders calls for free college tuition but does not fully tackle “the continuing enslavement of a generation to predatory student debt.” Stein calls for the abolition of that debt. “We did it for the bankers whose waste, fraud, and abuse crashed the economy. … Isn’t it time,” she asks, “to do the same for the victims?”
Stein notes that Sanders “provides cover” for the so-called Affordable Care Act (ACA). She flatly rejects Bernie’s claim that “Obamacare” is a noble first and incremental step on the path to actually social-democratic and universal healthcare. Dr. Stein thinks that the overly complex, corporatist, and failing ACA has to be torn up and replaced with a real, genuinely progressive national health care plan on the fully viable single-payer model.
And she notes — no small matter — that Bernie’s progressive if flawed domestic policy agenda cannot be paid for unless and until the United States drastically slashes its giant “defense” (empire) budget, which accounts for half the world’s military spending and 54% of US federal discretionary spending. That is a step that Sanders has shown no sign of wanting to take.
“They Find a Way to Stop Rebels in Their Ranks”
At first, the Clintons and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) seemed to welcome Sanders’ entrance into the presidential race. The Clintons were relieved that Elizabeth Warren chose not to run. They figured that Bernie would provide a useful foil and a voter interest-driving, sheepdogging helpmate on the populism-manipulating campaign trail. I asked Dr. Stein if the Sanders phenomenon had gone further than the Clintons and the DNC expected. “It certainly looks that way,” she said, adding however that there’s “nothing surprising” about Sanders’ success “considering the outrage out there and how a whole generation of young people is up the creek right now.” The Democrats, Stein also noted, “have a very effective kill switch when it comes to destroying progressive campaigns, whether deeply progressive or moderately progressive. Whether it’s the ‘Dean Scream’ or the smear campaign against Jesse Jackson or redistricting Dennis Kucinich, they find a way to stop rebels in their ranks. If, I should say when that happens with Bernie, our campaign is here.”
“Lesser Evilism Has a Track Record”
Let’s assume that the smart money is right and Sanders falls under the wheels of the Clinton and DNC machines after his early victories with liberal and progressive white Democrats in the small and very disproportionately Caucasian states of Iowa and New Hampshire. What, I asked Stein, about the longstanding and current quadrennial argument that many liberal, progressives, and even many radicals (e.g. Jill Stein’s fellow Lexington, Massachusetts resident Noam Chomsky) make about the “duty” of “responsible” citizens and voters to back Democratic presidential candidates as the “Lesser Evil” compared to the monstrous Republican candidate?
“The Lesser Evil argument has failed,” Stein notes. “It has a track record. And what have we gotten from it? The politics of fear” has under Obama “delivered everything we’re afraid of”: Wall Street bailouts, endless war, further climate meltdown, escalated attacks on civil liberties, persistent rampant institutional racism within and beyond the criminal justice system. The once supposedly antiwar Obama has intensified America’s disastrous imperial presence in the Middle East and overseen drastically escalated U.S. military incursions across Africa. He is dangerously provoking China with his (and Hillary’s) “pivot to Asia.” Now “he wants to quadruple the US military budget in Europe to intimidate Russia,” a nuclear power with real reasons to fear U.S-led NATO expansion in Eastern Europe.
Lesser Evilism’s abject failure is unsurprising, Stein argues. “Lesser Evil strategy,” she explains, echoing Ralph Nader, “requires you to be silent, to turn your voice over to a corporate-sponsored politics, to a corporate-sponsored party. The politics of fear delivers everything we are afraid of by entrusting the fox to guard the chick coup. Silence is not an effective political strategy. And besides, the Lesser Evil invariably paves the way for the Greater Evil.”
Here Stein cites the right-wing Congressional election victories of 2010, which reflected mass popular anger and disgust with neoliberal Obama’s failure to pursue a remotely progressive agenda when he enjoyed Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry citizenry ready to punish the plutocracy. Obama responded by protecting the bankers who crashed the economy and by “throwing [ordinary middle and working class] people over the cliff.” By 2014, Stein notes, just a third of electorate came out to vote since “Lesser Evilism gives you nothing to vote for. “Eighty percent of young people stayed home. Labor stayed home. A lot of women stayed away. “
“People don’t come to vote on what they fear,” Stein observes. “They vote on what they’re for.”
With the Teapublican right wing victories of 2010 and 2014, the corporate Democrats under Obama helped create their own excuse for failing to advance a progressive agenda: newly empowered Republican “obstruction” in Congress.
Beyond Simple Identity Politics
What, I asked Jill Stein, about the identity politics and gender-representation argument for Hillary Clinton — the notion that a first female president is long overdue and that that is in and of itself a good enough reason for getting behind Hillary Clinton next fall? Dr. Stein didn’t miss a beat. “Why not have a woman president who actually supports a grassroots agenda for women instead of a corporate agenda? That would be a novel thing. Is it just something,” Stein asks, “about having two X chromosomes in the White House? That’s NOT gonna do it anymore than having an African American president who has not been good for the African American community.” Black net worth has declined precipitously under Obama, from 10 to five cents on the white wealth dollar.
“Hillary’s all talk, not walk, on women’s issues,” Stein noted. She references Mrs. Clinton’s long tenure on the board of the giant, egregiously sex-discriminatory Wal-Mart corporation and Hillary’s support for the vicious 1996 “welfare reform” that tossed millions of poor women and children off public assistance and into the miserable low-wage labor market. Welfare caseloads and payments have fallen precipitously even as the need for assistance has increased.
“State of Emergency”
“Democracy,” Jill Stein told me, “needs a moral compass,” something that is lacking when “progressives” get behind a president who has consistently served Wall Street and advanced a reckless imperial militarism just because he happens to be Black or because he is a Democrat — or when they back a presidential candidate who promises to do even worse in the same ways just because she happens to be a woman or because she is a Democrat.
“And furthermore,” Stein adds, “we’re running out of time…we have to block the corporate stranglehold” on U.S. politics “because the clock is ticking.” Stein mentions three core crises. The first is the “the next crash,” which will result from a “financial situation” that is “more ominous than 2008” since “the banks are much bigger, more leveraged, more corrupt, and more concentrated” than even before. Forget the bailout. Now the nation’s leading financial institutions are “ready to do the BAIL-IN,” that is, to “seize whatever little security the average family has left.”
The second is anthropogenic climate change, brought to us courtesy of the predatory-capitalist carbon-industrial complex. “We don’t have very long, maybe a couple of decades before we are looking at the breakup of the ice sheets,” Stein told me, citing the latest Earth science and adding that we could well see a 20-30-foot rise in sea levels by 2050. “This is a not a hit we can survive. We are well into the sixth great extinction, which we also will not survive.”
“We are in a state of emergency and it requires a new way of thinking and political independence to stand up not just for what we can get but what must have if we are to survive as a human species, as a biosphere. …It’s now or never. This is our Hail-Mary moment.” We are approaching an existential chasm: we either take the deeply-revolutionary leap or its game over. The need to address climate change is humanity’s pass-fail moment.
Third, “there’s the war,” which only gets bigger and more devastating by the day” under Obama, whose drone war and global special forces expansion has done more to spread the geographic scope of jihad than George W. Bush’s terrible foreign policies. Hillary — who truly puts the evil in “lesser evil” (see the books cited in my first endnote if you have any doubt about that) — promises to magnify and expand the global military chaos, the permanent war on and of terror.
The “Catastrophism” Charge: “Just Dumb”
What, I asked Dr. Stein, about the argument some “Marxists” have made that such fears about climate change are an exercise in neurotic, politically self-defeating, and paralysis-inducing “catastrophism”? She reached back to her clinical past to give what I think is the perfect, bulls-eye response. “Patients,” Stein reflected, “have a right to know what they’re facing. As a doctor you wouldn’t just throw a diagnosis at people without a treatment plan. The ‘catastrophism’ charge is just dumb. You cannot fight life-threatening illnesses or life-threatening environmental problems or militarism or the rest unless you’re clear about both the extent of the problem and how to fix it.”
A key thing “left” critics of “catastrophism” fail to appreciate, Stein added, is that climate change is “eminently fixable.” Affordable technologies and methods for a sustainable, zero-carbon renewable economy are now in place. The real problem is political — the “corporate stranglehold” and “oligarchy” that we can break by going beyond the self-fulfilling “politics of fear” to form a great independent social and political movement for transformative social, political, economic, and environmental justice.
The Working Class and the Green Agenda
I asked Dr. Stein about the skittishness that many in the labor movement and working class feel about environmentalism thanks to decades of business propaganda claiming that policies favorable to livable ecology will destroy jobs. “No problem,” Stein replied, noting that the Green Party’s centerpiece policy agenda, the Green New Deal, includes “full employment with good wages in lines of work that are actually good for you and good for the community and the planet.”
Stein recently went to Texas to support striking oil workers. She found “fossil fuel workers” very enthusiastic about the notion “of a good job that isn’t going to kill them.” Workers in oil and gas drilling and fracking face significantly increased mortality risks due to the carcinogenic nature of their tasks. “We put their health up front.”
Moreover, the conversion from a rapaciously extractivist carbon-burning economy to one based on wind, water, and solar power and sustainable practices will be a big job-creator. That’s something that Van Jones has gotten right even if he has foolishly subordinated his politics to the Lesser Evilism of the Democrats. “A dollar spent on renewable energy and conservation creates three jobs compared to one job created for every dollar spent on fossil fuels,” Stein notes.
The Green New Deal is a “three-fer,” attacking the intimately interrelated economic and ecological crises at one and the same time while rolling back the military and security state that feeds perpetual war and economic inequality.
Immigration: “We’re Going to Stop Causing It”
What about white American workers and their fears of immigrants and immigration, evident in the support many working class whites have been giving to the nauseating likes of the ugly, proto-fascistic, and misogynist Donald Drumpf? Stein agreed with me that the white working class has real reason to fear the impact of immigrants on wages and employment prospects and that the immigration problem Drumpf and other right-wing politicians exploit is rooted largely in U.S. foreign and economic policies that make life dangerous and miserable for millions of vulnerable people abroad. “People ask me ‘what are you going to do about immigration?’ I say we’re going to stop causing it…though wars and NAFTA, the war on drugs, coups, and military interventions…We need to connect the dots” on U.S. policy, “free trade,” global poverty, and migration, Stein says, adding that “people are not stupid. They can and will get it when you make the connections.”
Reasons for Hope: “The Floodgates Are Going to Open”
Despite her bracing diagnoses of the current “emergency” state of America and the world and notwithstanding the Green Party’s relative invisibility in the dominant U.S. political culture right now, Jill Stein radiates remarkable can-do optimism. She thinks there’s real and exciting potential for a popular social and environmental revolution over and against the predatory and frankly eco-cidal capitalist “oligarchy.”
“If you allowed young people to know that there’s actually a campaign to cancel their debt and that the president has the power to do that without Congress, that would be 40 million votes right there for the Green Party,” Stein told me.
Stein cites a recent Wall Street Journal poll showing that half the U.S. population “has divorced the major parties” (21% call themselves Republicans, 29% identify as Democrats…the rest are neither). “It’ staggering!” The WSJ “buried the finding because it was so embarrassing…When they limit a debate to just a Democrat and a Republican, they’re actually locking out the largest constituency of all.”
Most Americans, Stein notes, have long told pollsters that two parties are not enough to represent the true spectrum of opinion in the country. And “when Bernie begins to be marginalized by the Democrats and people begin to see the true colors of the Democratic Party,” Stein says, “the floodgates are going to open” for independent and progressive political activity outside the reigning Business and War parties.
Recently the Green Party put up a meme on Facebook: “How Long Will a Counter-Revolutionary Party Support a Revolutionary Campaign?” Stein was initially unenthusiastic about running the slogan. But she was pleasantly surprised: “It went viral.”
Hillary Clinton, Stein agrees with me, has considerably less capacity to deceive and bamboozle progressive and young voters than Barack Obama enjoyed in 2007-08. “Obama,” Stein notes was fairly new on the scene. Hillary,” by contrast, “has been a warmonger who never found a war she didn’t love forever!”
A lot of young adults may be “wild about Bernie” right now, Stein says, but the passion will fade as they “go through the ringer” for the first time. They face a useful lesson when the nominal democratic socialist Sanders tells (as promised) his followers to vote for the dismal, demobilizing dollar Democrats.
After Pearl Harbor, Dr. Stein notes, the U.S. took just six months to convert to a full-blown war economy to help defeat the leading global threat of fascism. The current ecological crisis, Stein argues, “makes Pearl Harbor look like small potatoes.” And once again, to update Rosie the Riveter for the 21st century, “we can do it”: transform our economy to address what is now the world’s leading threat — environmental collapse rooted in predatory capitalism. Getting to a 100% renewables-based economy is entirely achieve-able by 2030, Stein notes, provided that we have the courage and decency to reject the viciously circular and self-fulfilling politics of fear and to make the real revolution required.
Stein agrees with the present writer that rank and file social movements are “the real engines” of progressive social change, consistent with radical American historian Howard Zinn’s oft-quoted maxim that (to paraphrase) “the really critical thing isn’t who’s sitting in the White House but who’s sitting in the streets.” But, Dr. Stein ads, “social movements need and deserve an independent political voice.” I have tended to quietly concur beneath all my recurrent social movement emphasis and critiques of electoral politics. That’s why I always take the admittedly brief amount of time needed to vote for left third party presidential candidates rather than just completely sit the “quadrennial electoral extravaganzas” (Chomsky’s term).
Want to help the Greens this year? The first thing is to make sure that the Green Party is on the ballot in your state. Another thing is to begin working now to help organize walkouts from the Democratic Party and Team Bernie if and, in all probability, when Sanders tells his supporters — as promised from day one of his campaign — to line up behind the eco-cidal corporatist and war-monger Hillary Clinton. It could get interesting, indeed, when Plan A meets Plan B.
The Green New Deal is the transitional revolutionary demand for our times. It is also a basic material and social necessity an existential leap we must take. It’s about “what we can get” and “what we must have” at one and the same time.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)